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Top 50 All-Time Bills, No. 33: QB Joe Ferguson

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Joe Ferguson had a long career as the Bills' starting quarterback. <a href="">(photo source)</a>
Joe Ferguson had a long career as the Bills' starting quarterback. (photo source)

QB Joe Ferguson (1973-1984) | 6'1", 195 lbs

Notable Achievements: Bills Wall of Fame

Joseph Carlton Ferguson, Jr. was born on April 23, 1950 in Alvin, Texas.  He went on to star for Woodlawn High School in Shreveport, Louisiana and was recruited by the University of Arkansas.  Ferguson lettered with the Razorbacks from 1970-1972 and went on to set numerous school passing records. He finished his college career as the school leader in passing attempts (611) and was second in completions (327), yards (4,431) and touchdowns (24). He also set a handful of individual game records.  He was named Southwest Conference Offensive Player of the Year following the 1971 season and elected to play in the North-South Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl after his senior season.  He was voted to the Razorbacks' All-Decade Team ('70s) and All-Century Team, inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, inducted into the UofA Sports Hall of Honor in 1993 and named a SEC Football Legend in 1995. He later coached quarterbacks at the school from 1997-2000.

After his storied career at Arkansas, the Bills selected Ferguson with a third-round pick in the 1973 NFL Draft (No. 57 overall).  He went on to have a long career with the Bills, before playing three season with the Detroit Lions (1985-1987), two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1988-1989), and one game with the Indianapolis Colts in 1990.  He would later join the San Antonio Texans of the Canadian Football League at the age of 45 in 1995.  Ferguson's career in Buffalo was marked with some outstanding play along with some terrible performances during some of the leanest years in Bills history.

He ranks second in most of the Bills all-time passing categories, but overall his numbers weren't overly impressive.  It's tough to blame Ferguson though, he played on some of the worst teams and most restrictive offenses in team history.  He was one of the best quarterbacks to ever don a Bills jersey and he's a member of the Bills Wall of Fame for a reason.

Career Highlights
After his great career at Arkansas, Ferguson was thrust into the spotlight immediately with the Bills.  He is one of the few quarterbacks in NFL history who started immediately as a rookie.  He started all 14 games during his rookie year in 1973, but spent most of the year handing off to OJ Simpson.  He finished with just 164 passing attempts, while Simpson rushed for over 2,000 yards.  The Bills went 9-5, but missed the playoffs.  Ferguson threw for just 939 yards and 4 touchdowns passes, along with 10 interceptions, while sporting a robust 45.8 QB rating, dead last in the NFL.  Those were some bad numbers, but it must have been tough to expect more out of a rookie third rounder who was asked to handoff the majority of the time. 

Ferguson saw an increased role the following year and saw his numbers increase.  His Week 1 performance proved he was more than capable of doing things besides hand off to OJ.  With Simpson out with an ankle sprain, Ferguson lead the Bills to a come from behind victory, which included a pair of touchdown passes to Ahmad Rashad with under 2 minutes left in the game.  Ferguson hit Rashad on a 9-yard touchdown with 1:56 remaining, and then after a Raiders touchdown on a fumble recovery he threw a 13-yard touchdown to Rashad to give the Bills a 21-20 lead they would not relinquish.  When Simpson was healthy again, Ferguson returned to handing off first, second and third, and passing fourth.  The team started 7-1 before stumbling down the stretch to finish 9-5, but they were able to make the playoffs this time losing to the Steelers 32-14.  He finished with 1,588 yards and 12 touchdowns, despite being asked to throw the ball 20+ times in a game just five times.

Ferguson took off during the 1975 season, as the shackles were finally loosened and he was allowed to throw the ball more often.  Even though the Bills ran the ball a whopping 588 times and lead the league in rushing, Ferguson was given the chance to throw the ball 321 times.  He responded by leading the league in touchdown passes with 25, while finishing with 2,426 yards and an 81.3 QB rating.  The team finished 8-6 and missed the playoffs. Ferguson was well on his way to a career year the following season when he suffered a season ending back injury in Week 7 against the Patriots.  He had been leading the league in many passing categories to that point, and was sporting a sparkling 90 QB rating when he went down.

His play would suffer during the 1977 season under coach Jim Ringo and as part of a bad 3-11 team.  Despite leading the league in passing yards with 2,803 and attempts with 457, Ferguson had a poor season as he also lead the league in interceptions with 24.  Ringo was gone after the year, and in came Chuck Knox with a different approach to utilizing Fergy:

"We weren't doing what other teams were doing, but we weren't a very good football team a few of those years," Ferguson lamented. "We had some protection problems, we didn't have the talent that some of the other teams had that were turning their quarterbacks loos. So you understand a little of why we didn't do it, but yet in your mind you were wishing you were able to see if it could have helped the football team."

The arrival of Chuck Knox and his offensive coordinator, Kay Stephenson, signaled a new beginning in 1978. ~Game of My Life: Memorable Stories of Buffalo Bills Football by Sal Maiorana, p.74

Following a rebuilding year in 1978, in which he put up 2,136 yards and 16 touchdowns, Ferguson was given more leeway in the passing game and he responded with a career best 3,576 yards in 1979.  The 7-9 record he lead the team to was a major step in the right direction.  The following season, Ferguson helped the Bills jump out to a 5-0 start, matching their best start since 1964.  The first game of that five game streak was against the Miami Dolphins, who had beaten the Bills 20 straight times.  However, Ferguson, who was 0-13 against the Dolphins to that point in his career, didn't play particularly well, throwing just one touchdown and a putrid five interceptions.  But the relief Ferguson and the team felt outweighed any feeling of embarrassment by his play:

"The relief of finally beating the Dolphins was tremendous," he recalled. "It wasn't that good of a ballgame for me that day statistically, but for us to come around and beat them late in the game, it was like somebody took the Empire State Building off your back. It was such a great relief to be able to say we finally beat the Dolphins." Game of My Life ~p.77

(I imagine we'll hear quotes like that if we ever beat the Patriots again.)

Ferguson would severely injure his ankle late in the season in the second to last week against the Patriots.  Needing a victory the following week against the lowly 49ers in wet Candlestick Park, Ferguson gutted it out and helped lead the Bills to their first AFC East Division title ever.  Two weeks later in San Diego, still playing on his severely injured ankle, Ferguson would again gut it out leaving a lasting impression on Bills fans everywhere for his courage, determination and pure guts in the Bills first playoff game since 1974.  Despite Ferguson's gritty leadership and a 14-3 halftime lead, the Bills couldn't muster enough offense in the second half to hold off Dan Fouts and the high octane Chargers passing offense, losing the game 20-14. The Chargers scored a late TD to go up, while Fergy tried desperately to mount a comeback.  His ankle gave out and he ended up throwing an interception to end the game.  Ferguson's effort was memorable and courageous even though the team lost that day.  His injury was also worse that originally thought:

"We taped that ankle up as much as we could," said Ferguson. "But it really hurt. I just couldn't get going with it. When I got back home and had it examined a final time, it was discovered that the ankle had been sprained, torn, pulled and stretched. And there was a cracked bone in the back of my ankle to top it off." Legends of the Buffalo Bills by Randy Schultz ~p.67

After the disappointing end to the 1980 season, Ferguson and the Bills came out and played very well in 1981.  He topped his single-season passing yardage record throwing for 3,652 yards, as well as 24 touchdowns.  The team again returned to the playoffs, this time with better results.  In the wild card round, the Bills traveled down to crusty Shea Stadium and outlasted the Jets 31-27 behind Ferguson's 268 yards and 2 touchdowns. The win was the Bills first playoff victory since the 1965 AFL Championship Game.  The following week, the team would again finish the season in heartbreaking fashion in Cincinnati.  After the Bengals scored a late touchdown to go up 28-21, Ferguson tried to mount a drive to tie the game.  He would complete a 4th and 3 pass to Lou Piccone deep in Bengals' territory to pick up a first down, but the play was nullified by a delay of game.  The next pass went incomplete and the Bills again lost a tough playoff road game to conclude their season.  Fergy finished the game with 202 yards and a touchdown.

The 1982 season was ruined by a strike, and a potential career year for Ferguson was lost in the process.  In the two games prior to the strike, Ferguson had thrown for 496 yards and 5 touchdowns, as the Bills started 2-0.  When the season resumed in November the Bills went 2-5 and Ferguson couldn't regain the magic from the first two weeks.  He finished the year with 1,597 yards and just 7 touchdowns, to go with a league-high 16 interceptions.  He would have one more big season the following year, as the team made one more run towards the playoffs, but fell short losing four of their last five to finish 8-8 for the year.  Ferguson threw for a career high 26 touchdowns and 2,995 yards, but also a career high 25 interceptions.  He did help them finally win in Miami, beating the Dolphins and rookie QB Dan Marino 38-35 for their first win in the Orange Bowl since 1966.  He went on to start the following season, before giving way to Joe Dufek after 11 starts and a 1-10 record.  The team didn't win their first game until late November against the Cowboys en route to a 2-14 finish.

The Bills traded Ferguson to the Detroit Lions prior to the 1985 season, after he was practically run out of town by the Buffalo News' Larry Felser.  It was a good breakup for both sides:

"Near the end of my career with Buffalo the press seemed to get on my physical ability. When we were winning I was fine. But when we lost I was considered 'over the hill'. That's why when I was traded [to Detroit] I was ready for a change. I felt it was time to move on and let somebody else take over. I had no regrets about leaving." Legends of the Buffalo Bills ~p.67

He would go on to stick in the league as a backup for another six seasons with the Lions, Buccaneers and Colts before retiring in 1990.  Ferguson had started every game in his Bills career until 1984 when Dufek replaced him in the starting lineup, and had shared the NFL record with Ron Jaworski for consecutive games started by a QB with 107.

Best Moment(s)
Ferguson had a number of memorable individual performances and was a part of many classic Bills games that solidified his place among the Bills' All-Time greats.  The gutsy performances against the 49ers and Chargers at the end of the 1980 season earned Fergy the respect of nearly all Bills fans.  His satisfaction and relief after the Bills finally beat the Dolphins early that year to end the 20-game losing streak was as joyous for Bills fans as it was for him.  However, Ferguson's performance in one game was by far greater than any other in his career.

In the 1983 win over the Dolphins in which the team ended their Orange Bowl misery, Ferguson set numerous team records.  In Dan Marino's first career start, Ferguson outshined him as the Bills came from behind to win a shootout 38-35.  Ferguson went 38-55 for 419 yards and five touchdowns, all of which established team records up to that point.  He was pretty much physically and emotionally drained after the game:

"I feel as good as I ever felt," Fergy said after the game. "It's taken me 11 years to win down here in Miami and it's a great win for us. This is something I really wanted to do before I got out of football. It really hasn't sunk in yet what we did against the Dolphins because you just don't do that. It was the most emotional game I've ever played in. I'm happy for everybody, especially Joe Ferguson."

Parting Shot
Joe Ferguson had what can best be described as an erratic, up-and-down career for the Bills.  He had a number of memorable highlights, but was as frustrating as any player in team history.  He played for some very, very bad Bills teams, but lead some of the most underrated teams in franchise history.  In the end, he should be remembered for his gritty performances, big games and his unwavering leadership.  He was one of the top quarterbacks in team history and will always be thought of as one of the franchise's best leaders:

"Besides being extremely talented, Joe was an unbelievable leader," said Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure. "He was the best leader of all the team sports I’ve ever played. He led by example."

After all his big moments, Ferguson just wanted to be respected:

"I would have liked to have left on a winning note," Ferguson had said. "That's my biggest regret. The fans will always wonder if I was the right quarterback for this team in recent years. I want to be remembered as a guy who tried."

It's hard not to respect a guy who played hurt, who played through the boos and losses and who had success in Buffalo for so long.  I never had the chance to see him play, but I'm sure he'd have earned my respect pretty quickly.

It should also be noted that Joe has been fighting acute myeloid leukemia after battling Burkitt's lymphoma in 2005.  He was placed in an intensive care unit in Houston in 2008, but has apparently beaten the cancer after extensive treatment, which is wonderful news.  For a guy that was consistently beat up and fought through so many injuries on the field, it's no surprise he is winning the biggest battle of his life.  Stay well, Joe!

Career Stats (with the Bills)
164 games, 163 starts
2,188 completions (No. 2 in franchise history)
4,166 attempts (No. 2)
27,590 passing yards (No. 2)
181 touchdowns (No. 2)
190 interceptions (Most in franchise history)
339 rushing attempts (No. 17)
1,174 rushing yards (No. 18)
10 rushing touchdowns (No. 17)

Joe Ferguson started more games at Quarterback than any player in Bills history.
(photo source)